George Lohmann took a mind-boggling 112 wickets in 18 Tests at 10.75 and a strike rate of 34.1; both stand as best among those who have captured at least 15 Test wickets © Getty Images
George Lohmann took a mind-boggling 112 wickets in 18 Tests at 10.75 and a strike rate of 34.1; both stand as best among those who have captured at least 15 Test wickets © Getty Images

George Lohmann, born June 2, 1865, was the greatest bowler of his day. With 112 wickets in 18 Tests, he boasts the best bowling average and strike rate among bowlers with more than 15 wickets. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life, career and premature death of the Surrey bowler.

He was charming, tall, fair-haired and handsome — irresistible to the ladies. The Surrey crowd loved to call him ‘Our George’. He was 26 when he went on his last Australian tour, and the Bulletin reported, “[Andrew] Stoddart and [George] Lohmann are the best-looking men in the English eleven.” On the same tour, captain WG Grace remarked that all the ladies were in love with Lohmann.

He had a wonderful sense of humour too. There is the tale of a match against All England, with a village fair going on in the adjacent field. The game was close, the last pair in, and he had been fielding in the deep, with the stall of cocoa-nut shies just behind him on the fair ground. The ball was hit towards him, and in came his throw, straight into the wicketkeeper’s gloves, running the batsman out and winning the match. What was kept a well-guarded secret was that the bails had been taken off not with the ball, but the cocoa-nut Lohmann had sent streaking in from the deep!

And in his time, he was also the best bowler of England — and perhaps in the whole world. Grace was not only eloquent about his obvious attractions that bewitched the ladies. Although he did have some conflicts with Lohmann during the tour to Australia, the grand old man had nothing but praise for his bowling. “He has no superior as a bowler… He bowls above medium pace —indeed he might almost be classed as fast — has a beautiful action and keeps a splendid length. He alters his pace without altering his action… Today, it is simply ludicrous to watch batsman after batsman walk into [his] trap … it is a triumph of the bowler’s art”

According to CB Fry, who was a teammate in South Africa with Lohmann during the latter’s last — and supremely successful — tour, “He made his own style of bowling and a beautiful style it was — so beautiful that none but a decent cricketer could fully appreciate it … owing to his naturally high delivery, the ball described a pronounced curve and dropped sooner than expected.”

Had he been blessed with sturdier constitution and had not been over-bowled, George Lohmann could have achieved much more than the already mind-boggling 112 wickets in 18 Tests. The tally was acquired with a monster average of 10.75 and a strike rate of 34.1 — and both stand as the best among those who have captured at least 15 Test wickets. Batsmen who faced him unanimously marked him out as the most difficult to play.

He could seam both ways, pitch them with uncanny precision on the proverbial coin, and experiment with flight, pace and angle without compromising on length and accuracy. More often than not he was unplayable, as borne out by his incredible figures.

15 of those 18 Tests were played against Australia. And after the first two in the summer of 1886, his figures stood at one measly wicket for 87 runs. The avalanche commenced with the third Test at The Oval, where he routed the tourists for 68 with figures of 30.2-17-36-7. In the second innings Australia did a little better, scoring 149. Lohmann took 5 for 68 in another 37 overs.

On three tours to Australia, he captured 41 wickets at an average of just over 11. This included two mesmerising spells at Sydney, amounting to 8 for 35 in 1886-87 and 8 for 58 in 1891-92.

In all, England won 12 of the matches against Australia with Lohmann in the team, and lost just three. Against South Africa Lohmann left no other option but for them to win all three.

As luck would have it

However, the very association of Lohmann with cricket was fortuitous. He was born in Campden Hill Road, Kensington. The place gained fame down the years after Violet Hunt and Ford Maddox Ford set up a salon during the turn of the century, a few yards away from the house where Lohmann spent his early years. It is now famed as a meeting place of HG Wells, Arnold Bennett, Joseph Conrad, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis and John Galsworthy.

During his early days, Lohmann played for the Upper Tooting Church Institute, the educational, social and sporting arm of the Anglican Church of St Mary Magdalene. And he spent a fair amount of time as a kid at The Oval, watching the stars of the day engage in cricketing encounters.

Yet, he did not play very seriously after his boyhood and his introduction to Surrey was purely accidental – like so many of our life changing incidents.  A friend of his was chosen for a Colt’s match at The Oval and Lohmann had accompanied him to the ground. He had been batting as his friend was turning his arm over at the nets when the head groundsman asked him to leave since he was not playing in the match.

Lohmann later wrote: “I was dreadfully disappointed, so I walked disconsolately away. In a few minutes Dick Humphrey came up and asked ‘Will you kindly go to the nets again — the Hon. Robert Grimston wants to see you bat.’ I did as I was asked and went through a sort of test performance — and through this I afterwards played for Surrey, for I was asked to play in the colts’ match in 1884.”

Yes, Lohmann was a handy batsman too — and ended up with three hundreds in First-Class cricket. In the late 1880s, he was considered the best all-round cricketer of England. Yet, it was soon his bowling that caught the eye. His first wicket was illustrious, WG Grace caught at gully. And in the last match of the season, against Sussex, his figures were 4 for 23 and 5 for 35. He had arrived.

The first case of burnout?

By the end of the Australian summer of 1891-92, Lohmann had played 14 Tests and had captured 74 wickets at 12.83. He was just 26, and his career promised to sail past every known and unknown horizon.

In 1887, he had bowled Surrey to the championship with 154 wickets. From 1888 to 1890, he had captured more than 200 scalps each summer. However, he was perhaps one of the first bowlers to suffer burnout.

From 1886 to 1891-92, Lohmann had bowled the equivalent of roughly 1,500 six-ball overs per season. And he was well above medium pace. It was not a fault of his captains. Even when WG Grace himself had offered to give him a break, Lohmann had responded, “You mean to put me on from the other end?” To Lohmann, a break meant change of ends. His zest for the game kept him perennially itching to have a go at the batsmen. He revelled at being in the thick of things. And even when taking a breather from First-Class and Test cricket, he played continuously in village games, festive matches and exhibitions.

The first indication of breakdown became apparent in early June, 1892, when he bowled sparingly against Nottinghamshire and sat out against Cambridge University due to ‘a touch of pleurisy’.

And then in the autumn of 1892, fate inserted a deadly spoke in the joyous wheel of his cricketing and other fortunes. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis, or consumption as it was known in those days. It would be three and a half years before he would play First-Class cricket again.

Following the instructions of the physicians of the day, he spent his winters in South Africa. Yet, when he occasionally returned for the summers he was far from a healthy man, a mere shadow of the youth he had once been.

The last Tests 

He did turn out for Western Province and on the matting wickets of South Africa, he proved more unplayable than ever. When a second string England side toured under Sir Tim O’Brien in 1896, he joined forces with his countrymen and tormented the South African batsmen. The country had cared for him, provided the warmth to counter the cold viciousness of tuberculosis. Yet, Lohmann did not return the on the cricket field.

The first Test was played at Port Elizabeth — a three-day fixture. England’s first innings total of 185 hardly looked daunting. By the end of the first day, South Africa had been demolished. Opening the attack and bowling unchanged for 15.4 five-ball overs, Lohmann had picked up 7 for 38. He used the matting wicket to diabolical effect – all his seven victims had their stumps rattled. South Africa managed just 93. The English second innings amounted to 226 set an almost impossible target of 319, but importantly, the Englishmen batted long enough to make it almost inevitable that the match would spill into the third day.

But, Lohmann did not think so. He needed just 49 balls to skittle out eight batsmen for seven runs. South Africa managed 30 in 18.4 overs, and the match ended with some time to spare on the second day. In his 16th over, Lohmann bowled Frederick Cook and Bonnor Middleton, and then had Joseph Willoughby caught by Tom Hayward, to end the match with a hat-trick.

Fifteen wickets as cheap as they come was not enough for this young man starved of international cricket for half a decade. In the next Test at Old Wanderers, Johannesburg, brought on as first change, he took nine for 28 in the first innings. It stood as the best analysis in the history of Test cricket until Jim Laker went past it at Old Trafford in 1956 by capturing all ten.

And in the last Test at Cape Town he captured seven for 42 in the first innings. Lohmann ended the series with 35 wickets at 5.80 apiece.

Yet, fate allowed him just one more Test match. He appeared at Lord’s against Australia and Grace asked him to open the bowling alongside young Tom Richardson. Lohmann was hardly at his peak, and struggled to get into rhythm. However, he managed to bowl unchanged for figures of 11-6-13-3. Tom Richardson took 6 and Australia were skittled out for 53.

He missed the next Test at Old Trafford because of a strained leg. And after Surrey’s game against Yorkshire had raised £625.13 as his benefit match, Lohmann was omitted from the third Test due to the first ‘Professionals’ Strike’.

The five professional cricketers of the England side, William Gunn, Bobby Abel, Tom Richardson, Tom Hayward and George Lohmann, refused to play unless their match fees were doubled to £20. Lohmann himself signed the letter which ran:

“Dear Sirs

In answer to your note I beg to inform you that we i.e. W Gunn, R Abel, T Richardson, T Hayward and myself are willing to play for England against Australians on Monday and two following days provided we are paid the sum of £20 each.

Yours faithfully
(sgd) GA Lohmann”

It was sent to the Surrey Club committee which was hosting the Test at The Oval, and they were not sympathetic to Lohmann. Perhaps with some justification, the club authorities felt that they had financially supported Lohmann through his illness, raised the money for his trip to South Africa for convalescence and it was high handed of him to ask for more, timing the letter so that they were left with little option.

Yet, looking it from the point of view of the professional cricketers, they did have their problems in obtaining fair and timely payments, with the supposed amateurs often making much more in lieu of supposed expenses. In the end, Gunn and Lohmann did not play. The other three professionals did.

This unfortunate incident signalled the end of his Test career. He migrated to South Africa for good and played a couple of seasons for Western Province in the Currie Cup, as usual taking wickets by the bushel. However, there was a standoff with Surrey regarding payments and he did not come back to play for them in the summer. By 1897, he had taken on two jobs in Johannesburg, coaching at Wanderers and an official position for Rand Water Supply. Besides, with his health deteriorating, he was no longer fit enough to turn out for England.

In 1901, when South Africa toured England against the backdrop of Boer War, Lohmann was back in his native country as the manager of the visiting side. Coincidentally, arriving at Southampton on the same boat as the touring side, the Briton, was Rudyard Kipling — the man who had recently called cricketers ‘flannelled fools at the wicket’.

Lohmann was delighted to renew his relationships with his old cricketing mates, but was far from well. He grew tired and had to breathe heavily after very short walks. Friends were shocked and dismayed by his rapid decline.

Tuberculosis, which had plagued him for so long, claimed his life later that year in the South African town of Matjiesfontein. He was just 36.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)